Waziris­tan bat­tle key in fight­ing Tal­iban in Pak­istan

The Washington Times Weekly - - National Security - BY SARA A. CARTER

Key ad­vis­ers to the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion are warn­ing of a vi­o­lent sum­mer for Pak­istan as its forces pre­pare to en­ter the rugged tribal ar­eas of North and South Waziris­tan for a show­down with the Tal­iban and al Qaeda.

The two Waziris­tans form a nexus for Tal­iban fight­ers along the Afghanistan-Pak­istan bor­der. And with the U.S. surge in Afghanistan un­der way, a Pak­istani mil­i­tary suc­cess on its side of the bor­der could rep­re­sent the turn­ing point in a war that has gone badly for all three na­tions.

Pak­istan’s army has been hu­mil­i­ated re­peat­edly by Tal­iban fight­ers in past, es­pe­cially in the Waziris­tans, mak­ing the up­com­ing of­fen­sive a test for the key U.S. ally.

Bruce Riedel, a Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion scholar who chaired a re­view of Pak­istan-Afghanistan strat­egy for Pres­i­dent Obama in the early days of his ad­min­is­tra­tion, warned that Pak­istan faces a tough en­emy.

“We can cer­tainly hope that Pak­istan has turned the cor­ner,” Mr. Riedel said. “But ex­pe­ri­ence should en­cour­age us to be some­what skep­ti­cal.”

He added: “We’ve seen some en­cour­ag­ing signs, but it’s a lit­tle pre­ma­ture to call this a victory yet.”

Pak­istani troops have re­cov­ered much of the Swat Val­ley, an area much closer to the cap­i­tal, Is­lam­abad, that was over­run by Tal­iban mil­i­tants ear­lier this year.

But it has yet to re­set­tle hun­dreds of thou­sands of refugees from the for­mer tourist area, an ef­fort that will re­quire a per­ma­nent mil­i­tary pres­ence to keep the Tal­iban from re­turn­ing. Apart from mil­i­tary mus­cle, Pak­istani of­fi­cials have out­lined a broader strat­egy that in­cludes in­vest­ment and de­vel­op­ment in hopes of pro­mot­ing long-term sta­bil­ity.

“Pak­istan army of­fi­cials even say that the mil­i­tary is only one part of a much broader so­lu­tion that needs to be met,” Mr. Riedel said.

Pak­istani of­fi­cials call up­com­ing op­er­a­tion in the Waziris­tans “mat­ter of sur­vival” for their coun­try, as it will tar­get Pak­istan’s top Tal­iban com­man­der, Bait­ul­lah Mehsud.

Mehsud has been the mas­ter­mind be­hind ter­ror­ist bomb­ings that have claimed hun­dreds of lives in Pak­istan in re­cent years, in­clud­ing re­tal­ia­tory at­tacks for the Swat of­fen­sive. Barely a week goes by without a bomb­ing or ter­ror­ist at­tack by his fight­ers.

Mehsud is also thought to be be­hind Tues­day’s as­sas­si­na­tion of Qari Zain­ud­din, a ri­val Tal­iban leader in the Waziris­tan re­gion.

Pak­istan has been pound­ing the re­gion from the air for sev­eral weeks, as have sus­pected U.S. drones.

“The Pak­istan mil­i­tary is pre­par­ing for a big­ger mil­i­tary of­fen­sive in the area,” said a se­nior Pak­istani of­fi­cial, on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause of the sen­si­tive na­ture of mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions.

“Bait­ul­lah Mehsud is cer­tainly a tar­get on our list, and any al Qaeda op­er­a­tives and sup­port­ers who are in our way will be tar­gets for us as well,” the of­fi­cer said.

The U.S. mil­i­tary re­port­edly launched mis­sile at­tacks last week tar­get­ing Mehsud and his al­lies.

Mis­siles ap­par­ently fired by un­manned air­craft first struck a pur­ported Tal­iban train­ing cen­ter in South Waziris­tan, then an­other bar­rage rained down on a fu­neral pro­ces­sion for some of those who had been killed, As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported.

The sec­ond at­tack ap­peared to be the dead­li­est U.S. mis­sile at­tack ever on Pak­istani soil, killing an es­ti­mated 80 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the AP. Mehsud re­port­edly es­caped.

A U.S. in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cial for South Asia, who spoke on con­di­tion that he not be named be­cause of his work, said the up­com­ing op- er­a­tion comes amid signs of im­prove­ment in Pak­istan’s coun­terin­sur­gency ca­pa­bil­ity.

The of­fi­cer cited three rea­sons for op­ti­mism: the size of the Pak­istani force in­volved, a shift in Pak­istani pub­lic opin­ion to sup­port the ef­fort and ex­pec­ta­tions of new tac­tics adopted by the Pak­istani mil­i­tary to “min­i­mize some of the prob­lems that have been as­so­ci­ated with past mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions.”

Re­cent Pak­istani mil­i­tary op­er­a­tions in the Swat Val­ley have been hailed as a suc­cess by the Pak­istani gov­ern­ment and U.S. de­fense in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials, who con­cur that the Pak­istan mil­i­tary has cleared more than 80 per­cent of the mil­i­tants from that re­gion.

The ques­tion U.S. of­fi­cials ask is whether Pak­istan can hold ar­eas it seizes from mil­i­tants, which would mark a shift from past op­er­a­tions where Pak­istan’s mil­i­tar y would fight, leave an area and the Tal­iban would re­turn.

That change in strat­egy is a hope­ful sign, de­fense in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cials told re­porters at the Pen­tagon last week. They spoke to re­porters on con­di­tion that their names not be re­vealed be­cause of the sen­si­tive na­ture of their jobs.

Re­cent ter­ror­ist at­tacks since late May have been at­trib­uted to the Tal­iban re­tal­i­a­tion over the gov­ern­ment of­fen­sive in Swat.

Once the Waziris­tan of­fen­sive be­gins, Mr. Riedel said the mil­i­tants will push back hard.

“The Tal­iban and al Qaeda rec­og­nize that they are in a fight for the fu­ture of Pak­istan,” he said.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IM­AGES

U.S. sol­diers pa­trol through a vil­lage in Afghanistan’s rugged Spira moun­tains, across the bor­der from Pak­istan’s Waziris­tan re­gion, late last year. An up­com­ing mis­sion in North and South Waziris­tan will tar­get Pak­istan’s top Tal­iban com­man­der, Bait­ul­lah Mehsud.

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